On Wednesday, Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, was viciously attacked by Sen. Bernie Sanders over his Christian faith.
Sen. Sanders deemed Vought unsuitable for office because he believes that salvation is found alone through Jesus Christ. He said someone with that kind of a religious belief system is “really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”
Sen. James Lankford warned that Sander’s comments “dangerously close to crossing a clear constitutional line for how we evaluate qualifications for public service.”
“The First Amendment is crystal clear that the federal government must protect every American’s right to the peaceful and free exercise of religion,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “We cannot say we have the free exercise of religion and also require people to practice their faith only in a way that government officials prefer.”
The Vermont senator’s comments brought strong condemnation from Christians across the nation – including Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
“Senator Sanders is taking the Obama era’s religious hostility and putting it on steroids,” Perkins said.
Thousands have signed a Family Research Council petition demanding Sanders apologize for his outburst of religious bigotry.
Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas (and a Fox News contributor), said that there are only two choices for the senator: “Apologize to the country for his foolhardy attempt to introduce an unconstitutional litmus test that would exclude 41 percent of the country, or resign.”
The controversy stems from an article Vought wrote in 2016 defending his alma mater, Wheaton College. In that article, he described Islam as a “deficient theology.”
“This is a fundamental problem,” he wrote in The Resurgent. “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
Sanders confronted Vought during the congressional hearing. The following is a transcript provided by FRC:
Sen. Sanders: “‘Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.’ Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?”
Mr. Vought: “Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith…
Sanders: “…Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?”
Vought: “Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College…”
Sanders: “I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that these people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?”
Vought: “Senator, I’m a Christian…”
Sanders [shouting]: “I understand you are a Christian, but this country [is] made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?”
Vought: “Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals…”
Sanders: “…Do you think that’s respectful of other religions?… I would simply say, Mr. Chairman that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”
As Perkins pointed out, salvation through Jesus Christ is a core biblical tenet held by Christians for millennia.
“Yet Senator Sanders is making it clear that he believes the U.S. Senate should disqualify nominees who express this most basic biblical belief,” Perkins said.
“Americans should never be forced to choose between their faith and public service. Nor should the U.S. Senate try to impose a stealth litmus test that says ‘you can be religious as long as you don’t actually believe or talk about what the Bible teaches.'”
After Sanders’ wrapped up his rant, David French wrote a powerful rebuke of Sanders for National Review. “There is nothing ‘extreme’ about his statements, and they mirror the statements of faith of countless Christian churches and schools across the land,” French wrote. “Are these believers also not fit for public office?”
It’s a fair question and one that I posed to Sen. Sanders’ office. Does he believe Christians are unfit to hold public office?
The senator’s press office did not answer that question directly.
“The question at hand is not about Mr. Vought’s freedom to hold certain religious beliefs,” the senator’s spokesman told me. “The question that concerns Sen. Sanders is whether Mr. Vought will carry out the duties of his office in a way that treats all Americans equally, even those whose beliefs he has criticized.”
It was an ugly moment in American politics, but it was also an instructional moment for American Christians.